The Mistress and Governess of Human Emotion- Martin Luther on Music

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I’ve been listening to a series of lectures on the history and development of music in Western Civilization and Martin Luther surprisingly came up. In keeping with the changing commitments in his time, Luther seemed almost Socratic in his attitude about the powerful influence of music on our lives. Socrates, recognizing the extreme power of music, thought the poets should be banned from the state. Luther agrees about its power, but argues that music can be a resource for soul-enhancing change:

Greetings in Christ! I would certainly like to praise music with all my heart as the excellent gift of God which it is and to commend it to everyone. But I am so overwhelmed by the diversity and magnitude of its virtue and benefits that I can find neither the beginning nor end or method for my discourse… We can mention only one point (which experience confirms), namely, that next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise. She is a mistress and governess of those human emotions- to pass over the animals- which as masters govern men or more often overwhelm them. No greater commendation than this can be found- at least not by us. For whether you wish to comfort the sad, to terrify the happy, to encourage the despairing, to humble the proud, to calm the passionate, or to appease those full of hate- and who could number all these masters of the human heart, namely the emotions, inclinations, and affections that impel men to evil or good? – what more effective means than music could you find? The Holy Ghost himself honours her as an instrument for his proper work when in his Holy Scriptures he asserts that through her his gifts were instilled in the prophets, namely, the inclination to all virtues, as can be seen in Elisha [II Kings 3.15]. On the other hand, she serves to cast out Satan, the instigator of all sins, as is shown in Saul, the king of Israel [I Sam 16.23]. Thus it was not without reason that the fathers and prophets wanted nothing else to be associated as closely with the Word of God as music. Therefore, we have so many hymns and Psalms where message and music join to move the listener’s soul, while in other living beings and [sounding] bodies music remains a language without words.

Gesa Elsbeth Thiessen, ed., Theological Aesthetics: A Reader (Grand Rapids: MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2005), 145.

Many of us regularly listen to music with an almost religious fervor. I wonder how this music affects our emotions, and how we are using music as a tool to challenge and to elevate our minds? Another question comes to mind- if all music is a form of meditation- how much do you think singing should be incorporated into the rhythms of our lives- both communal and solitary?

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